Just Don’t Look at Them and You Should Be Okay

Homelessness is far more apparent in Melbourne than in Manchester, and the way we speak about those experiencing homelessness matters.

I arrived in Melbourne with my fellow exchange students in early July 2023, bidding farewell to the UK summer and experiencing the shock of cold, jet lag and disorientation. 

There was a keen sense of excitement amongst us though, and with Manchester being my home city – one of the biggest cities in the UK – I felt prepared for Melbourne’s urban life. After settling into a hostel, we navigated the arduous task of house-hunting, eventually securing a lovely, little property near St Kilda’s Luna Park.

I’m well aware that the Aussies don’t give St Kilda Beach the highest of praises, but to a group of English students who see a coastline once a year if we’re lucky, having the privilege of living so close to any beach has honestly felt like paradise.  

There have, however, been breaches to that notion of paradise; whilst we’ve sat on our porch drinking coffee together in the mornings, it hasn’t been uncommon for there to be a person sleeping rough on the reserve across from our house. 

Only a day or two after arriving in Melbourne, as I was walking along Acland Street with some friends, a homeless woman experienced what appeared to be a mental health crisis; she began screaming erratically and followed us down the road, shouting verbal abuse. 

Not long after that, on an uncharacteristically warm afternoon in July, I went shopping along Chapel Street. As I was leaving a shop, I heard a shriek from further up the road. A homeless man was experiencing what looked like a drug-induced psychotic episode: he paced back and forth, screaming repeatedly.

It was a weekend afternoon; there were children with parents, elderly couples and dog walkers. The nonchalance with which people simply crossed the road to avoid him, or shopkeepers tutted and closed their doors, shocked me.

I’d never witnessed anything like this before, and I don’t claim to have the answer on how to handle such a situation. Personal safety is paramount, and in this case, professional help was needed. Yet, what alarmed me as much as the man’s behaviour, was the mundanity with which people carried on their tasks, and with which, following their lead, I did the same. 

I don’t know the outcome for that man, whether health services were contacted or anyone safely intervened, but I could still hear his screams through the window of a shop much further up the road. 

The volume of people sleeping rough in Melbourne’s suburbs is sobering, but witnessing rough sleepers is not something that I’m unaccustomed to. Whilst Melbourne has the highest rates of homelessness in Victoria, with 1,508 people without a home (approximately one in 9,890 people) my home city fares even worse. Manchester’s levels of homelessness are some of the highest in the UK: around 7,407 people (one in 74 people) are experiencing homelessness.

It’s important to note that rough sleepers form a small percentage of the unhoused population, with the hidden homeless (those in substandard/unsafe housing, emergency shelters or temporary accommodation) comprising the majority. But with approximately 91 people sleeping rough in Manchester on any given night, it hasn’t been the amount of people on the streets that has been so much more apparent in Melbourne. It’s the behaviour, then, of those being forced to sleep rough, that is in such stark contrast to my previous experiences in the UK. 

When discussing the relationship between homelessness and substance abuse, it’s critical to highlight that addiction is far from the leading cause of homelessness in the UK or in Australia, nor are all people experiencing homelessness abusing drugs or alcohol.

Unhoused people are far more likely to experience poor health across the board – including their mental health. Substance abuse, when it happens, is much more often the result of housing insecurity than the cause of it. In Melbourne, for example, recent research from homelessness services has demonstrated that while 43% of the homeless population reported having issues with alcohol and other drug usage, only one-third reported that they had these problems before becoming homeless.

When substance abuse disorders are present in the homeless population, however, the illicit drugs that are most widely accessible differ drastically between Australia and the UK.

Melbourne has the highest number of container shipments in Victoria, and this has been a purported driver of Victoria’s disproportionately high heroin usage, accounting for 45% of the nation’s total consumption. Methamphetamine is similarly widespread and easy to obtain, having been reported as the most consumed illicit drug nationwide. Methamphetamine and heroin directly affect the central nervous system, leading to altered perception, increased aggression and impulsive behaviour. 

In the UK, a group of substances called synthetic cannabinoids, referred to as ‘spice’ or ‘the zombie drug’, have been in use for more than a decade. A highly addictive psychoactive substance, it induces a semi-comatose state in users. 

Although charities in other big UK cities report spice addiction as an issue among their homeless communities, Manchester’s problem is particularly visible. Researchers estimate that 90-95% of homeless people in Manchester smoke the drug.

This means that in Manchester, passers-by can reassure themselves that the unconscious individual by the side of the road is not in urgent need, but instead is only sleeping. And whilst walking past a person sleeping rough is always an upsetting and uncomfortable experience, I have never once felt unsafe doing so in my home city. 

Whilst substance abuse among rough sleepers in Melbourne often increases their visibility, in Manchester the opposite occurs.

Discourse acknowledging the humanity of Manchester’s homeless population rarely surfaces in daily conversations, consigned instead to news articles, academia, and charity initiatives. There’s an unconscious expectation that even a rough sleeper’s most extreme distress will be experienced quietly and privately, never encroaching too grievously upon a passer-by’s day-to-day life. 

In Melbourne, this etiquette is overturned: a homeless person in a drug-induced crisis is far more likely to be expressing themselves publicly than passively, even if societal norms still dictate that they’ll be ignored. 

Whilst I’m not suggesting that mental illness in the homeless population is synonymous with dangerous or violent behaviour, it’s important to acknowledge that a subset of rough sleepers in Melbourne do sometimes present in a way that is volatile and/or antisocial due to substance abuse disorders. A specific discourse has therefore arisen to set them apart, a discourse less commonly entering mainstream discussions on homelessness in the UK.

A reassurance that has been expressed to me repeatedly over the past few months is that if you, ‘just don’t look at them then you should be okay.’ This is not baseless advice; intervening when a stranger’s behaviour is erratic and potentially psychotic may escalate the situation, no matter how good your intentions are. But for these occurrences to be so commonplace as to incite no reaction other than wilful ignorance paints a very grim picture.

I’ve lost count of how many times individuals presenting with severe mental health problems have been described as ‘crackheads’ by people around me. I’ve even come across an Instagram page with over 73,000 followers that is in part dedicated to filming and ridiculing homeless people along Chapel Street. And whilst ‘crackhead’ is not a term I hadn’t heard in the UK before, its ubiquity in describing some of the most vulnerable people in Melbourne is shocking. 

Discourse around homelessness in mainstream conversation seems to fall into one of two camps: unhoused people are either regarded as objects of ridicule to provide light entertainment, or they are abstract nuisances, eyesores that litter pavements. But the people we see on the streets are exactly that: they are people first and foremost, and that has been forgotten too readily. 

When someone refers to an individual as a ‘crackhead’, or laughs at a homeless person’s erratic behaviour, I don’t believe that they’re being deliberately inflammatory or intentionally expressing hate. I believe it’s far more likely a defence mechanism. 

Reductive terms psychologically distance homeless people from us in such a way that they are no longer fully human. To accept their humanity is to grapple with their suffering, something we prefer to avoid in our daily lives. 

When we regard other humans and their behaviour, particularly behaviour that unsettles us, it is vital to remind ourselves of the points at which we are vulnerable, or could have been vulnerable, if our lives had taken a different turn. The kind of household we have been born into, the resources we do or do not have access to, the trauma we did or did not endure; almost all of these things are a cruel game of luck. 

We should steer clear of attempting to judge someone’s entire character on singular moments in their lives. This is especially true of people who, at the time of your meeting, have fallen through every single safety net, both in the public and private sphere, and have been left to suffer in one of the most vulnerable and degrading positions imaginable. 

Adjusting the way we speak about those experiencing homelessness will not get them off the streets and into secure social housing, nor will it ensure access to adequate mental health services to support them through these transitions. And whilst people are currently being forced to sleep rough on the streets outside my house, I’m well aware that engaging in a kind of etymological debate about homelessness can feel tokenistic.

However, our choice of language influences how we view and categorise issues, and this is a necessary step in re-framing perceptions of homelessness.  Every person deserves the right to a life that is not lived in survival mode, and there is a governmental responsibility to prevent that right from being denied.

Describing people in crisis is often clunkier in diction than laughing at a ‘crackhead’. It also asks for a lot more empathy and requires a grounding in reality. And that reality is not a pleasant one, least of all for the person in the throes of it. 

I’m well aware that on an individual level, the words we use will do nothing to change the material reality of the people whose plights we are trying to describe. But in a world that denies the humanity of the homeless at every possible turn, we have an easy opportunity not to contribute that bit further to their dehumanisation. It’s a small ask.

Lucy McLaughlin

The author Lucy McLaughlin

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